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May 2, 2024 by Gordy Megroz

Longer Reads: Stop Underselling Yourself

Outdoor creatives tend to devalue their work, despite owning many skills. We need that to stop.

Christine Tegg Wheeler had long considered
herself a photographer.

She began shooting as a kid and went on to take photography classes. An avid traveler who had visited more than 45 countries, by 2011 she shifted her focus to travel photography, and by 2017 she’d launched a blog called Live Love Run Travel where she chronicles her adventures and publishes her photos. Then work picked up. She began getting requests to shoot for tourism offices and major hotel chains. “I’ve shot campaigns for tour companies, soft-drink companies, and outdoor gear companies,” she says. “The work is pretty steady.”

Despite her experience though, Wheeler, who lives in Orlando, Florida, has been hesitant to market herself as a photographer. “I usually just call myself a content creator,” she says. “I think I’m a good photographer and people and companies have hired me specifically to take photos for them. But I’m not as trained as many of the photographers out there, so I guess that’s the reason I devalue my title. Maybe I have imposter syndrome.”

Gabriel Amadeus Tiller tells people he runs a non-profit—and fails to mention his content side.
The producer, director, fixer, and filmmaker, Dirk Collins refuses to undersell his hard-won skills.
Expertise and versatility is not a demerit, says the multi-talented director Mike Call.

In the outdoor industry, Wheeler, is among a large group of creatives who devalue themselves and their expertise. When I posted on the Facebook group, Basecamp, a career resource for outdoor professionals, asking to speak with creatives who devalue themselves, I got dozens of responses. People who work in film, writing, and photography responded to the post, writing that the problem is “epidemic” and pinning the tendency on “imposter syndrome.”

So why is devaluing yourself such an issue for creatives in the outdoor space? Because so many outdoor creatives came into their crafts through love of sport and adventure, many people I spoke with point to the notion of not being “classically trained,” and that makes them question how to classify themselves—even after they’ve built a career doing good work.

“When people ask what I do, I don’t tell them I’m an executive director, I tell them that I run a non-profit,” says Gabriel Amadeus Tiller, who lives in Oregon and runs the Orogenesis Collective, which is building long-distance mountain biking trails and supports its mission with original writing, reporting and short films.

I’m sheepish about it. Maybe I feel like I didn’t earn that title because everything I know is self-taught.  —Gabriel Amadeus Tiller

In other cases, creatives might not even be consciously devaluing themselves. Dirk Collins, who co-founded Teton Gravity Research and has spearheaded dozens of major projects since, has successfully navigated the outdoor creative space for nearly 30 years. He believes it’s the pressures of the industry that make it hard for creatives to label themselves correctly, to take ownership of their expertise and résumés. Outdoor creatives are scrappy, entrepreneurial, and self reliant by nature. When you work in the weeds seeing projects through from inception to distribution it can be hard to pull back and recognize your value. “People are bouncing around, trying to make a living,” he says. “On a lot of projects, you have to wear many different hats and so, instead of saying you’re a director on a project, you might simply call yourself a ‘filmmaker.’ Well, no, you’re a director, a producer, a talent and location scout, and more. It’s OK to own it. ”

Self devaluation, according to Collins and Mike Call, a Salt Lake City cinematographer and director, is a big mistake. When you fall for that trap, you’re not only hurting your bottom line, you’re hurting all creatives who work in the outdoor space. “The fact that you can handle every aspect of production isn’t a demerit,” says Call, “It shows your expertise. You wouldn’t call a master electrician a laborer. This stuff is hard and takes skill. You should take credit for what you do.”

And if one “filmmaker”—a broad term for somebody who might direct, produce, edit, score music, and operate a camera—continues to take jobs at a lower rate, while performing all those functions, it keeps the market value for creatives low and the expectation that “filmmaker” can do it all, high. Undercutting professionals on price is not a sustainable business model for anyone. Neither is failing to market your skills properly.

Using a term that’s too broad can also be a turnoff for some clients. A lot of companies are specifically looking for producers or directors. If you tell them that you’re a filmmaker, that might not say ‘producer’ to them.  —Dirk Collins

Both Call and Collins have managed, through years of work, to add proper value to their jobs. “I used to get calls from a producer at NBC,” says Call. “At first I would just jump at it. But after a few shoots with them, I realized how much I was being overworked and undervalued.” After that sank in, Call started asking lots of questions about what his exact role would be on a job before he agreed to take it. If it sounded like he would be employed as a camera operator, then he would sign on at that rate. If it sounded as though he’d also need to direct, then he called himself a director and demanded that he be paid for that role.

“The more projects you take on the more you begin to understand what the roles are,” says Collins. “I can now look at a project and say, ‘oh, I’m going to be a producer on this project,’ and so that’s what I call myself and that’s what I’m paid for.”

Katie Crafts, who works as a recruiter and career consultant in Oregon, says that no matter the profession, you have to own the value you bring to your role. “You need to be as specific as possible about that because, by devaluing yourself, you’re not only not helping yourself, but you’re also not helping your next employer,” she says. “They might be looking for exactly the skills you’re hiding.”

Having a mentor to help you properly value your skills is helpful. But Collins says that a lot of knowing what you bring to the table and what you call yourself comes with experience. Which is why younger people and those that came into the creative industry from non-traditional paths tend to be ripe for imposter syndrome.

For Christine Tegg Wheeler, a support group—really it’s just a community of creatives—has helped. In 2022, when a Florida hotel came to her asking if they could buy some of the photos she’d taken for a well-below-market rate, she turned to her circle of creatives for advice. “We get together and talk about our jobs, pitches, rates, etc.,” she says. “They said to me, ‘you’re a photographer and you need to be paid what other photographers get paid.’”

Wheeler went back to the hotel and told them that, as a professional photographer, she needed to make a certain amount off her photos. The hotel paid her a fair price. And the experience further empowered Wheeler. She recently updated her pitch deck so that it better reflects her job: professional photographer.